There were three reasons we were a little anxious leading up to our cruise on the Pearl last week. One, it was our first time cruising. Next, we were a gay family and didn't know if that would be an issue. Finally, we had a child - just how family friendly would it be?
For first time cruisers, this was a fantastic experience. The embarkation day was smooth and the process was quick and easy to understand. The staff were friendly from the getgo and made us feel welcomed and excited to begin our trip. From the first crew member we met until the day we walked off the ship, our 5 year old daughter was treated like a (and called :) Princess. A big shout out to our cabin steward Herbert to makes the best towel animals EVER! :)
We had friends recommend we book a mini-balcony suite because of travelling with our daughter and we are SOOOOO glad we took that advice. Our cabin was beautiful and spacious. We never felt crowded, my daugther could take baths and her bed was left set up as a bed (not tucked back as a couch) for the whole trip but we could easily get around it to the balcony. There was a flickering light in the bathroom that we mentioned to our steward when he brought our bags (we were into our room before 2 and our bags were delivered by 4.) He called down right away and then checked back in an hour and when he discovered it hadn't been fixed, he called again and maintenance were there within 10 minutes and it was all fixed up. The main bed was VERY comfy, the linens were soft and the pillows were great. Our daughters couch/bed was very firm but when we asked her if she wanted a topper, she said no and slept like a log the whole trip. I loved that there was a curtain that went across that part of the room so that she had her space and we had ours. That privacy was very nice.
We registered our daughter in the kids club on the first day. The staff were very friendly to her and answered all of our questions and possible concerns. Their information and schedule was easy to understand and we were able to opt into it when we wanted to. I had some issue with the age breakdown groups. My daughter turns 5 in a week and is in her second year of school so it was a strange thing to be in a group with 2 year olds (it's from 2-5yrs - that's a big range). I think they would be better off with a toddlers group of 2-3, a school age group of 4-6 and so on. It certainly limited the activities for her group and she was bored sometimes. I found that there was too much "freestyle play" and not enough planned activities. And in general, other than kids club, it's not really that kid-friendly for those under 6. The slide is for 6 and up, the bowling alley is for 6 and up, etc. They are super friendly with kids but the experiences/equipment are limited.
As far as the food goes, I was pretty impressed with the variety and options. We ate at the Garden Buffet a lot - it was definitely the most kid friendly. The staff were great and when we specifically asked for something that wasn't there, they went out of their way to try and find it for us. Unlike other reveiws I read before we sailed, I thought they tried to keep the options pretty fresh and interesting. I really liked that there was food from different countries and cultures. We ate in the Summer Palace a couple of times and had mixed reviews. Again, staff were great but the food was just ok. We went there for the formal dinner - got all dressed up - and some other diners were dressed up but really, you couldn't tell it was a formal night. I kind of wish they would designate at least one venue as formal for that one night... it would have made it feel more special. I did think that the group singing Christmas carols at the end of November felt a bit premature :) and I was surprised that they sang religious (Christian) carols and not secular holiday songs given the obvious variety of backgrounds of travellers. We had a fantastic meal (just the adults) at Cagneys - best Prime Rib I've had in a long time. Our meal at the Lotus Garden met my craving for Chinese food but wasn't the best I'd had. It was pretty good. We didn't have a wait at either place (at any place, actually) although we tended to eat early because of our daughter.
Entertainment - this was a mixed bag for sure. I'm not sure that Norwegian really knows who they are gearing their entertainment too... so it felt like it tried to reach across ages but ended up, at times, being inappropriate. Some shows that were advertised as "family friendly" were way too old in content for our daughter. But we had a great time at the Sharkbait show (jugglers, physical comedy...some jokes flew over her head which is great. occassionally the language was a bit rough but she was fascinated with their act). We went back to their second (different material) show later in the week, also great and then went to the final Encore show - review of Broadway hits - our five year old theatre wannabe loved the song and dance.
I thought the poolside entertainment was kind of cheesey...and pretty loud. The only games were booze-based. I wished there had been some family friendly stuff on the pool deck.
Shore trips - Great Stirrup Cay is what it is. A small island owned by Norwegian and still under construction. So, it is limited in what it offers. But because it was the first stop in our cruise, it was nice to just have a laid back beach day. We opted to go on the eco-cruise and while it was good to learn about some of the islands nearby and we did see a stingray or two and my daugther held some starfish... it wasn't enough "meat" for the money. The guides were fun and friendly but it was pretty light.
Next stop Jamaica. Well, we had our own reasons for not getting off at this stop (i.e. it's illegal to be gay in Jamaica and we could have been arrested - no joke.) but I was really surprised how few people went ashore. And when we talked to the ones that stayed aboard, it was all about safety. Unless they had a shoretrip that was really planned, they didn't just go onshore on their own to see the sights. It didn't feel safe. But what that meant was that there was a whole lotta people on board with very few things to do. I guess that surprised me - how little there is that is offered on board during a port day, other than the Spa which is shockingly expensive. There is no kids club offered while in port, the onboard stores are closed and bowling closed, etc.
Grand Cayman... well we were lucky. There had been bad winds and waves the day before and apparently three ships had cancelled coming the day we arrived but we anchored on the other side and so were the only ship in port that day. I love Grand Cayman - was there last year for a week and knew it was a great place. It is the safest place in the Caribbean IMO. That being said, because it was so wavey, I knew the snorkelling wouldn't be great so I just took my daughter and we did some shopping and poking around and had a happy 1/2 day there. Note: great coffee at Cafe De Sol which was a place I'd remembered from last year and was so happy to find again because that was one of my only real complaints about the Pearl - I thought the coffee was atrocious and so didn't drink ANY all week which just about killed me :) Best coffee I had was in the Miami airport - yay for Cuban coffee!
Cozumel- hmm. Well, I liked that we could walk off. It was certainly crowded- there were five ships in port. But if you could be patient, then the line for taxi's wasn't too bad and the people were friendly and we'd told our daughter there would be a lot of people trying to sell her things and get her attention and taught her to just say No, thank you.. a lot. We had booked the Dolphin Experience at the national marine park and got there with lots of time to spare. The park itself was a little disappointing - it was beautiful and really clean which I appreciate. But there was no childrens playground (although they'd advertised one)and the sea lion show was only on once every two hours for 20 mins so we managed to miss both of them because of the timing of our "experience". The dolphin/manatae show was very disappointing - the guide walked and talked and so on a windy day, no one could hear him. The manatae were just in a walled off ocean pool with a lot of seaweed and algae on top and they were hiding underneath so we didn't see anything. The Dolphin Experience that we booked was in itself, ok. The trainers were friendly and pretty informative but it was pretty cut and dried - 2 times of touching the dolphins, one "hand" shake, one "kiss" that was completely geared to the photo op that would then cost $80 dollars and that was it. It was successful because they are amazing animals and it was a privilege to be that close. But it was clearly a money making thing and the restrictions around taking your own photos was annoying when the only other choice was their very expensive package.
Our last sea day was the only bad weather day and really, it was just overcast and windy and rocky, no rain so I can't complain about that. The instructions for debarkation were a little confusing but in the end we got our luggage tags just fine. Our flight back to Toronto was for 1:40 and we had thought of getting 9:30 tags but they recommended 7:50 am tags for getting our flight and because we'd never done this before, we got the 7:50 ones. Our colour of tags were called at 8:05 and we were off the ship and through customs and in our taxi to the airport by 8:35 and at Miami International by 9 am so we had a whole lotta time in that airport. It's always good to have more time than less but that was a lot.
Overall, it was a good experience. It was funny though, because it's all "freestyle" which gives a lot of options, it also means that it is really easy to cruise with 2000 people and never really meet anyone. Because you are at your own little table for meals, because the kids program is just drop in and not the same kids each time, because there really aren't a lot of "mixer" games or activities if you don't drink a lot, I found it was kind of lonely sometimes. At times, that bothered me but it also meant I had space to read and think and relax too. It's more of a comment than a criticism... but if someone is crusing for the first time and isn't really extroverted or a big drinker, I think it's easy to feel a bit lost or out of the loop. I expected to meet more people or get to know more people than we did. I'm really friendly but there weren't that many families on board and nothing that was planned for families to hang out together.
We will probably cruise again - maybe when our daughter is old enough for all the equipment and more of the shore activities. And I"d choose Norwegian again, if nothing that the service which was excellent. There is a reason that the Pearl has won best Crew for the last two years.
Thanks to you all for your reviews which helped me plan and get ready and excited for our time away. Hope this can do the same for some other newbie :)